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Concept of Written and Spoken Torah in Judaism

Updated on May 11, 2011

Concept of Written and Spoken Torah is one of the core axes in a religious life of Jewish community. It is foundation to Torah commentaries and everyday life regulated by the teachings of Torah.

Written Torah is a canonized set of The Old Testament books and Spoken Torah is its commentaries. The dualism of Spoken Torah and Written Torah derives from the commandment of Old Testament not to add anything to the canonical text and not to write what is spoken on one hand and need to lead life very precisely along Torah’s word on the other. In order to uniform understanding of Torah in a community, authorized comments were an absolute necessity. The need to explain how exactly laws of Torah should be interpreted was already present in times of Ezra. Members of the community would gather to receive teachings orally. Once Jewish community grew and became more scattered, the only way to keep Torah teachings uniform, was to put them in written. That’s how Spoken Torah paradoxically became a text as well. Without the concept of Written and Spoken Torah, this phenomenon would be not only confusing, but contradicting to the laws of Old Testament (not to add anything to written text). Legitimating of comments firstly come from another strict commandment - to secure canonical text from any inaccurate interpretations and provide every member of scattered community with everyday life instructions based on Torah. The comments are believed to be of divine origin as well and for that reason can be called “Torah”. Anyway, in order to separate it from Old Testament itself, the name of Spoken Torah was given – even though it is a written text as well.

The first comment of Torah ever written is Mishneh. Eventually a need to interpret and explain Mishneh itself has appeared. Emergence of new phenomena and new conditions to live in, required to explain them in the light of The Old Testament. Based on this need further comments were being made. All those commentaries of Written Torah are called Spoken Torah or Jewish exegesis. Concept of Written and Spoken Torah enabled to combine immutability and flexibility of Jewish laws. It serves as a mean of unification of spiritual and material worlds and testimony of divine singularity.

One perception within multiple opinions

Judaism is the world's first monotheistic religion. Texts for canonization were selected mostly according to this criterion. There is one God, one Torah, one perception, one way of life. There is no science or art or everyday life outside the Torah teachings. But Torah is collection of multiple texts, formed in Judaic tradition. Midrash is not a work of one author as well. Furthermore, the sacredness of interpreting Torah and warning not to create anything new binds to forget personality of the interpreter, which is met with humble obedience. However, having been written by multiple authors, at first glance Spoken Torah seems not homogeneous and expresses different opinions on the same matter. So how sacred singularity is preserved?

Interpretations of the Torah were following a path between the two tracks preventing dangerous skidding in any direction. On one hand the rule not to add or take away anything from the sacred text is followed. On the other – boundaries to protect perception of Torah must be set. The latter concept is helpful for understanding how regardless of few opinions on same matter the homogeneity of explanation is maintained.

Example could be three different opinions on reciting of evening prayer “Shema” (Mishneh, Chapter Zeraim, tractate “Berachot”, I-1). The tractate gives three opinions of different rigidity upon how evening prayer should be recited – two of the prominent wise men, and one of the “majority” (namely, the opinion of the majority of wise men was usually recorded as correct). The most rigid opinion states, that the prayer can be recited until midnight, but Gamaliel Raban extends it to the morning dawn. However, in a way of understanding Torah all opinions are in adhesion. The evaluation of human capacity is what differs. All wise men agree that Shema can be recited until dawn, but by ordering to do it until midnight they delay possibility of forgetfulness and sin, thus setting boundaries for Torah.

Hermeneutical Principles of Interpreting Torah

It is believed, that humanity was given the holy text of Torah together with the means to interpret and to understand it. The key to understanding Torah believed to be in Torah itself. One of such keys is hermeneutical principle called Kal va-Chomer, which defines that if something is true in a simple situation, “how much more” it is true in a complex one. For example “Behold the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth: much more the wicked and the sinner (Proverbs 11:31).

Other important rule is argument of analogy called Gezerah Shavah. It states, that if one prophesy has come true, all the more to come true is the other. The example could be a scene of destruction of the Temple described by Midresh Eich Raba. Paradox of the situation is created with the help of character Rabbi Akiva. All the wise men are crying and grieving, while Rabbi Akiva is laughing. When asked why he is rejoicing Rabbi Akiva explains, that if the prophesy of destruction of The Temple came true, the prophesy of its rebuilding will come true as well.
When trying to come to reasoned decision, wise men would search for correlations to episode concerned, places where the same issue is described more intelligibly. Sometimes seemingly easily understandable fragments are researched in order to highlight unexpected aspects of situation. Both thorough study of one fragment (exegetic) or comparison of thematically related fragments (homiletic) are present in Judaic exegesis. One situation can mirror another, and both of them can be interpreted according to that principle.

Living by the laws of Torah

Religious and everyday life is inseparable in Judaism and both have to go along strict laws of Torah. The Old Testament is not only a source of cosmological knowledge, but a guidance for everyday life – how to walk, how to sleep, how to judge etc. Given the importance of respecting the laws of the Torah, it is imperative that wise men have to explain specifically how to do it. That is the essence of Torah commentaries or Spoken Torah. For example, if in month of Av one should abstain from parties (Mishneh, Moeda, Chapter II, treatise Ta'anit IV-6, 7), then from what kind of parties, and what is considered a party after all? When answering questions of a kind, wise men usually follow the rule of “setting boundaries” in same manner as in the example of reciting prayer Shema. Wise men are inclined to choose a stricter rule in order to protect from any possibility of sin.

However, both the act and its moral motivation must have a connection. For example, the law of Sabbath reveals unity of action and thought, human and God. Giving up ones jobs on Sabboth is a symbolical manifestation of relationship between human and God, who himself was resting on this day. The importance of Sabboth is so deep, that, surprisingly, it is legitimate to break the law once in order to keep to it in the future. Although it is not allowed to do any work, it is allowed to take actions, necessary to save one’s life. One can and must sacrifice one day of Sabboth in order to live and celebrate many days of Sabboth. (Thalmud of Babylonia, tractate Joma).

With the help of constant interpretations Jewish tradition manage to adjust to new circumstances while keeping its relevance and originality. Today Sabboth is celebrated in the light of electricity rather than candles, but with the help of Spoken Torah and principles of interpreting The Old Testament, a practitioner can still respect an obey the laws.

To sum up, both The Old Testament and Judaic exegesis is an object of interest not only for believers, but as well for scholars who use it as a source for historical, hermeneutical and other researches. Exegetic tradition reveals very unique and interesting approach to a text and thinking patterns. However, it is not only a monument of history or literature but a text of vital importance and background for Jewish community.

An excellent lecture on Judaism from Yale


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      Green Wasabi 7 years ago

      Thank you for your comment!

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      Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

      I enjoyed your hub as it was very interesting. congrats on your nomination.

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      Green Wasabi 7 years ago

      Thank you for nominating me!

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      Michelle Simtoco 7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination.

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      Green Wasabi 7 years ago

      Thanks for your comment!

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      ladyjane1 7 years ago from Texas

      Nicely done, great read. Cheers to you.

    • Green Wasabi profile image

      Green Wasabi 7 years ago

      This is true. I also agree, that although all major religions have something good in them, blind followers often misinterpret the messages which results in dire consequences. Nevertheless I would credit Judaism with putting huge emphasis on education. Even though education doesn't necessarily make people immune to fanaticism it plays the most important role in preventing it.

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      Victor Sierra Mike 7 years ago

      @Garry Bannister

      I could not agree more with you. The interesting thing is that this restrictive environment (or requirement to adhere to rules) promotes creative thinking and interpretations. Therefore it is no coincidence that Jews are generally the best lawyers; it is in their very culture to look deeper into things, observe and interpret even the slightest of nuances and apply them to a particular situation.

      Since Christian and especially Islamic philosophies are much younger than Judaism this tradition of research and interpretation is less prominent. Moreover, both lack the difference in spoken and written tradition that is one of the most fascinating developments in Judaism.

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      Garry Bannister 7 years ago

      There is a problem with all Judaeo-Christian Islamic philosophy in that it prescriptive. Laws are created to help protect, develop and encourage a certain way of experiencing reality. However what function in one set of circumstances, do not and cannot be prescribed for others. For example any commandment is always related to a set of perceived conditions. The wisdom to interpret is the living mind grappling with imposed limitations and can therefore often bring the very best out of individuals and communities but alas, it can also precipitate deleterious consequences for those who are unable to moderate what they have been told by intelligent and ‘wise’ interpretation.

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      Xavier Nathan 7 years ago from Isle of Man

      A very well written and informative article. Thank you.

    • Green Wasabi profile image

      Green Wasabi 7 years ago

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts! This is what fascinates me as well. In fact the way how Torah was interpreted can be called very scientific in a sense of precision and logic and being orientated to serve practical needs. Even though the object of research was a text, not a natural world as in case of philosophers of Classical antiquity.

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      Darrke Thoughts 7 years ago from Eugene, Oregon, USA

      Interesting explainations. I think it is good that Jews have this duality between the written and spoken version of their scriptures. Times change, and many interpretations need to change with them (like with the electric lights!) I'm impressed that a system was developed to handle those changes while still maintaining the traditions as sacred and untouchable.